LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KRQE) – Jayann Sepich is on a journey to change laws throughout the United States after her oldest daughter was raped, strangled and dumped in the desert in 2003.
The Sepich family has been on the cross-country crusade to change the law for 14 years. They say they’re doing it for families they’ve never met before, for parents they hope to never meet.
Katie’s death spearheaded a change in New Mexico’s law first. Her killer, Gabriel Avila, wasn’t found until three years after her death through a DNA match. Avila being arrested for a felony just months after her murder. Avila’s DNA was not taken until after he was sentenced. “Katie’s Law,” changes that. “We want their check swabbed,” Jayann said.
Katie’s Law was first enacted in New Mexico in 2006, requiring DNA be taken from suspects of violent crimes upon arrests. Then in 2011, Susana Martinez, the now-former District Attorney who put Katie’s killer behind bars became governor.
As governor, Martinez would enact an expansion of Katie’s Law which would require all felony arrestees in New Mexico have their DNA collected. Their DNA file would then be put into the state database. It wasn’t too long after Katie’s Law went into effect that crimes were being linked to a suspect.
Seven years after the law was enacted in New Mexico 500 DNA matches were connected to suspects in unsolved cases in the state. Dave said he and Jayann knew they needed to take their fight to other states. “After we passed in New Mexico, then we got to see how effective it was,” Dave said. “My job is to kind of do some of the behind the scenes stuff.”
To the surprise of many, the Sepich family used Katie’s life insurance to start the Katie’s Law campaign. Dave worked to secure money through fundraisers and grants. While Jayann took on a new mission that would have her hopping on planes to talk to state lawmakers from nearly two dozen states. “Oh gosh, I’m trying to think about them in order,” Jayann said. “Just around here, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Washington state, Maine, Rhode Island.”
Last year, Jayann spent 135 nights out of New Mexico testifying before lawmakers. It’s a task that often takes its toll on her emotionally. “Every time you have to relieve Katie’s story, it’s very emotional,” Dave said.
He is also in awe of the strength and fight his wife has. “What she does is like going to a job interview 25 times on each trip. She’s going in to meet with a legislator; she has to convince them of her story,” Dave said. Not all lawmakers have been on board with the idea of taking DNA from suspects before conviction.
In 2015, when Jayann lobbied in Indiana, Senator R. Michael Young had concerns about Katie’s Law. “To say that we can take someone’s DNA because they made some kind of violation, whether they did it or not, for example, is a scary thought for me,” Young said.
Convincing lawmakers is one thing. The small-town New Mexico mom has also had to take on civil rights groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union. “We just urge caution in assuming that this is an answer into criminal investigations,” ACLU of New Mexico Director Peter Simonson said.
The ACLU argues taking DNA before a conviction is a violation of someone’s rights. “To some degree, you are doing away with the presumption of innocence,” Simonson said. Their concern is if someone was acquitted police would still have access to, what the ACLU considers, the person’s most personal information. “DNA is a squirrelly kind of a thing,” Simonson said. “There is more to it than fingerprints.” Jayann, of course, disagrees. “There’s no names that go into the database. Those names are kept back at the state level,” Jayann said.
Still, Peter Simonson with the ACLU of New Mexico says its a slippery slope. “We will arrive at a place in the not too distant future law enforcement believes it can predict you predisposition for certain criminal behavior based on what they see in your DNA,” Simonson said.
Katie’s Law helps the wrongfully convicted
James Tillman was convicted in a brutal rape, assault and robbery. He turned down a plea deal that would have given him a much lighter sentence of five years. He said he did it to maintain his innocence and so that way his mom wouldn’t have to go to church thinking he was a rapist.
It was nearly two decades after he started his long prison sentence that Tillman was exonerated through DNA.”The DNA proved that I was innocent and it got the right person,” Tillman said. “I showed remorse to what happened to her but I didn’t do it.”
Tillman met Jayann while he was meeting with members of the Innocence Project in Connecticut. The group helps exonerate people who’ve been wrongfully convicted.
When he heard of Katie’s Law, the fight to help Jayann get it passed in more states became personal. Tillman has already lobbied for the law in several states. “I think we’ve been to Indiana, Kentucky and I’ve been to Seattle with her,” Tillman said. He also said if Jayann Sepich called him tomorrow he would hop on another plane to testify that Katie’s Law will help the innocent.
To learn more about the Sepich family’s fight, go to dnasaves.org. (Video Courtesy: DNA Saves; ‘Coed Nightmares’ )